Who hasn’t been at a children’s party and started an impromptu game of keep-ups with a balloon? It’s fun, addictive and can get fiercely competitive. Well, that same game has just had its own World Cup, won by Peru, after a thrilling final watched by a sell-out crowd in Spain and around eight million Twitch viewers online.
If you’re wondering how a seemingly childish activity could ever become a legitimate source of sporting entertainment, we need to go back to Covid lockdowns – and how those experiencing cabin fever got creative to stay active at home. Some juggled toilet rolls, did indoor parkour or ran marathons on their balconies.
Meanwhile, Antonio and Diego Arredondo, together with sister Isabel, relived their childhood by leaping around their Oregon living room in spectacular fashion as they tried to keep a balloon in the air. “We started arguing with each other over if [the balloon] hit the ground or not, so we started taking videos in slow-mo to see if it did, and then finally it got to the point of let’s post this video of us on Tik-Tok,” Antonio told Reuters. Their hugely entertaining games went viral.
Over in Spain the celebrity streamer Ibai Llanos became a huge fan, as did the Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué, who loves a bit of fun and has form for getting involved in other sports, having overhauled the Davis Cup. Llanos joked on Twitter in August that the game should have its own World Cup, with Piqué replying to say he would make it happen if Llanos’s tweet received over 50k RTs. It got far more. So with a bit of nifty marketing, Llanos’s throwaway remark became a reality in Tarragona at the weekend.
Thirty-two teams of competitive ballooners from around the world were invited to take their skills to the limit in a battle to be crowned world champions at the PortAventura theme park. Diego Arredondo, one of the siblings largely credited with inspiring the tournament, was among those competing in an eye-catching arena that resembled a glass-encased living room. In later rounds, rather bizarrely, a car is parked in the middle, but then, every successful sport needs a sponsor.
The rules are simple: the balloon always has to be struck upwards and a point is won if it hits the floor. Matches last between two and five minutes and the player leading when the clock stops wins. And, much like squash, competitors must not hinder their rival’s path to the balloon. Match highlights are wild fun to revisit, with the Spanish commentators, Llanos and Ander Corts, regularly losing it as they revel in the sneaky tactics of competitors who play drop-shots behind obstacles or when a player leaps over furniture to save a point. Unlike some sports, men can play against women and helmets must be worn to guard against head injuries – a collision with the corner of a dining table could be nasty.
Officials drawn from the world of football take their jobs very seriously and refer close calls to the VAR room, where slow-motion is used to determine whether the balloon touches the floor or not. Veteran former La Liga assistant referee Rafa Guerrero is particularly officious as he keeps a close eye on play, with pundit Piqué regularly asked for his opinion as though he is a veteran of the nascent sport and not a legend of Spanish football.
There’s a thrilling first-round derby between Andorra and France that goes to sudden death with the score 6-6 before a rookie French error (a downward kick) gifts the tiny principality a huge victory. There’s an angry reaction from Italy as they are knocked out by Morocco amid controversy and there is a shock first-round defeat for one of the sport’s founding fathers as Arredondo, representing the US, is dumped out by Cuba. The UK also fall at the first hurdle with Equatorial Guinea proving far too crafty with a mix of powerful strikes and feather-fingered taps to advance 6-3.
Online figures raced up towards 600,000 concurrent viewers as the tournament reached a final between Peru’s Francesco De la Cruz and Germany’s Jan Spiess. And the 300 fans packed into the venue (among them Sergio Agüero and Jordi Alba) got their money’s worth as the players threw themselves around the court in epic style, bouncing off furniture and toppling chairs in a thrilling spectacle. And it was the 18-year-old De la Cruz who emerged victorious after using the car expertly for balloon drop-shots. “I am very, very happy, I thank God that I have been able to achieve this,” he gushed after lifting the golden balloon (the Balloon d’Or?) and earning a cool €10,000.
It is still unclear whether the event was a one-off or if it will be back again next year. But if people keep buying the array of snazzy #keepitup Balloon World Cup merchandise and posting videos of their own skills online, then expect it to become an annual event. Some World Cups are worth having more regularly.